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Chapter 1: Where are we? (The Technological Tempest: Charting a New Course)

Prelude

This book arrives in a society completely lost in a sea of technological gadgetry. Furthermore that society is unceasingly buffeted by powerful winds of change that continually destroy and reshape both the social and physical landscape. The book attempts to explain how we arrived at this situation, what forces and visions drove us here. It recalls the warnings of the prudent which were ignored as we discarded the anchor of past moralities and left the safety of the shores for a new adventure that promised wealth and opportunity for all. To some extent it is a story of pirates and brave heroes, but it reads as much like tragedy as it does epic. The book reveals what we left behind and by drawing on small islands of knowledge it attempts to chart a course to take us through calmer, safer waters.



Chapter 1.

Stated in the most dramatic terms, the accusation can be made that the uncontrolled growth of technology destroys the vital sources of our humanity. It creates a culture without moral foundation. It undermines certain mental processes and
social relations that make human life worth living.

Neil Postman, Technopoly (1993)

Introduction: Where are we?

Like many people I have, at times, been in thrall of the power of science and technology. In my honours year as an undergraduate student I saw potential to understand the forces of nature. One area of particular fascination not just for me but also for scientists, technologists and business people everywhere was the relatively new fields of chaos and complexity theory which largely emerged in the 1990’s. These were hard, mathematical scientific theories that offered promise for understanding previously incomprehensible natural forces in a rigorous way. I allowed my imagination to run loose with the possibilities that these new approaches offered, and I found that many of the possibilities I envisioned were shared by others. However, at some stage I came to realise that while this science may give us a new way of thinking about complex natural processes it could never provide the complete understanding I had hoped for. That was my first disappointment. My second disappointment came following years of study in the fields of artificial intelligence and machine learning, the topic of my doctoral dissertation. I had held high hopes that these fields would open up new possibilities for not only
understanding the human mind and human nature, but also for solving many of humanity’s problems. Imagine having an army of machines that could research medical science; could run production processes freeing us from toil; could produce food from raw materials. All in all humanity would be released from the constraints of nature; released from hunger and disease. All the dreams of science fiction would be available: a life of leisure to study and explore vast fields of knowledge and the rapid development of technologies for space exploration and habitation. 

I now see how deluded and misguided I was on so many fronts. No doubt many readers have experienced a similar journey (or are perhaps on one now). In this book I attempt to explain both the delusion as well as how it arises. In its place I attempt to paint a picture of a more real and sane reality (and, in my opinion, a better one in many ways). The more enlightened among us may never have succumbed to the delusions I describe, and hopefully for them this book provides a validation of their world view. I do not pretend to be the font of all knowledge, or to have all the answers, all I can offer is one person’s perspective. For many that perspective will be challenging. That in itself is sufficient reason for me to write this book, independently of how accurate or convincing my case is. Such challenges need to
be placed as we each need to question claims and beliefs (and perhaps refute some) so as to determine for ourselves what is true and what is false. Otherwise the risk of delusion remains. A second reason is, as I stated earlier, to present an alternative view of the role of science and technology in our society and the world in general. Of course I am not unique in this area, and many ideas that I discuss and present are not new or novel to the literature (however, they may be for the reader). I hope that by drawing on the work of others and by providing one more perspective on these issues, that I can help balance the scales in some small way. And by balancing the scales I mean helping people avoid succumbing to the allure of seeing science and technology as the provider of solutions to all our problems and as an unconditional net
benefit to mankind.

At this point I would like to present some common claims made supporting the path of technological development that industrialised (mostly western) nations have taken. These claims will be investigated and aspects of them both challenged and supported throughout this book:

Claim 1:  Without technology we would not be as healthy

Claim 2: Since industrialisation, quality and length of life has improved (eg: infant
mortality has dropped, life spans have extended and people have more
opportunities.)

Claim 3: Our modern science and conveniences would not be possible without our history of industrial development.

Claim 4: Modern science has dispensed with superstition.

Claim 5: Technological development and industrialisation in agriculture is necessary to support today’s large global population.

We will look at each of these in various levels of detail as themes develop throughout the book.  However, there is one fundamental assumption that needs to be challenged outright and up-front. That is the assumption that the path of industrialisation and technology development that we have been on was not only necessary and inevitable, but also was the only way to achieve the benefits we have attained. This assumption underlies many an argument justifying courses of action that were once taken, and are often still taken, to achieve results. The assumption itself rests on valuing economic and material outcomes over fairness and justice. As I will argue in this book, through such thinking not only are principles of fairness and justice often compromised (or totally abandoned), but in many cases, the claimed economic benefits can be shown to either not exist, or if they do, to exist only in the short term or for a minority group. In the case of minority (or elite) groups benefitting, it is not uncommon to find that this benefit is gained at the cost of someone else’s loss. The attitude that economic expediency should take precedence over fairness is perhaps reflected in the following statement by the economist John Maynard Keynes (Keynes, 1931):

‘For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.’.

But this was not what Keynes claimed to aspire to, as preceding the above statement he states (Keynes, 1931):

‘I see us free,
therefore, to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of
religion and traditional virtue—that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of
usury is a misdemeanour, and the love of money is detestable, that those walk most truly in the paths of virtue and sane wisdom who take least thought for the morrow. We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin.’

So, such a strange philosophy from one of history’s most influential economists: to aspire to one set of values, but claim it can be achieved through another.

Western society also has a great fear of a
Malthusian famine. Thomas Malthus authored “An Essay on the Principle of Population” in 1798. In that treatise he argued that population would
inevitably rise to point where resources were exhausted, resulting in famine. This fear is supported by evidence of many periods of famine – for example in England between1600 – 1800, and reports of humans’ stunted growth as result of malnutrition during this period up to the early 1900’s (Roberts, 2008). Malthus predicted a crisis for the human race by the middle of the 19th Century. That fact that the predicted crisis never occurred is often attributed, at least in part, to new technology. For example, Roberts (2008) explains that “as food prices rose, producers redoubled efforts to increase productivity with whatever new technology or input might help raise yields”. This question leaves open the relative contribution of each possible factor. What proportion of the increase in yields was due to an increase in inputs, and what proportion due to improvements in technology? This is an important question which we will investigate later.

Not long after Malthus’s essay another concept entered into the modern lexicon: the Luddite. The term Luddite is usually applied in a derogatory way. Often it implies the idea of a laggard i.e. someone who is resistant to change (in case anyone is considering labelling me as a Luddite based on this book, I would like to establish up front, that I am certainly not resistant to change; in fact I am anxiously anticipating change. But I anticipate positive change, whereas what I see around me is largely in a negative direction, as will be argued in due course). A Luddite is also seen as someone who is opposed to machines, and by implication technology and technological progress. This comes from the history of the term Luddite which emerges from a movement, triggered reputedly by a person of the name Ludlam or Ludd, in which industrial machinery was smashed between 1811 and 1816. However, Postman (1993) describes the Luddite fight as “people desperately trying to preserve whatever rights, privileges, laws, and customs that had given them justice in the older world-view” (pg  43). Thus the Luddite fight can be seen as one for human values in a culture where machines were increasingly replacing the meaningful work of craftsmen with cheap products (Sale 1999). Sale (1999) describes the movement in detail including a Luddite ballad used at the time which is as follows:

‘Chant no more your old rhymes about bold Robin Hood

His Feats I but little admire I will sing the Achievements of General Ludd

Now the Hero of Nottinghamshire

Brave Ludd was to measures of violence unused

Till his sufferings became so severe

That at last to defend his own Interest he rous'd

And for the great work did prepare.’

With this understanding of a Luddite, as someone who believes in the dignity and rights of people over machines and an industrial system, the label does not seem one to be so ashamed of.

Let us consider in more depth what the Luddites were fighting. We can start by considering a few facts about the social history of England that led to the Luddites smashing the machines of industrial civilisation as described by Sale (1999). From the 1500's up until the Luddite movement there had been on-going theft of land from villagers in England by their elites (the enclosure movement). This theft was supported by state power.

This hit a peak early in the 1800's as many elites evicted villagers and
appropriated the land for their own purposes. A mass of people were thus left homeless and destitute. Not just the villagers, but the craftspeople who depended on them. This mass converged on the cities and the emerging factories seeking work. There was insufficient work for all of them, so many literally starved. There were riots, which were brutally suppressed by army troops who were deployed, as necessary, around England. In fact this is the recurring pattern of our culture and industrial development. Similar techniques were applied to Indigenous nations from the Americas to Australia. The pattern has been repeated continuously now for around 500 years; no signs of change are apparent. It reflects a failure to learn. For the last few decades there has
been talk about the importance of 'Learning Organisations', but we do not have a 'Learning Society'. On the contrary, the evidence is that in some important respects our culture cannot adapt, it cannot change. Thus our culture and society continue to be based on coercion and violence which is more apparent at some times and places than others. By right of might (economic and military) our culture claims ownership of the entire planet. History shows that any alternative culture that western culture encounters is eventually destroyed (Saul, 1992). First by violence, followed by a loss of sovereignty, autonomy and community. The pattern of lawlessness in this regard is clear: from the theft of land from English peasants to the theft of land from American Indians (and
Australian and other Aborigines), despite numerous legal contracts assuring indigenous ownership (Hedges & Sacco 2012). General Custer's famous last stand was a process of stealing land, legally owned by Indians, because they refused to sell it and they stood in the way of resource extraction (Hedges & Sacco 2012). Sitting Bull acidly suggested that the whites should “start selling dirt by the pound”. Faced with the violent destruction of his tribe and the theft of everything they owned, Sitting Bull also posed the question “Do we submit or resist?” (Hedges & Sacco 2012). The disregard of western culture for other cultures and contrary views is apparent. The Occupy movement is a
case in point here. Groups of peaceful people using relatively small patches of public land to present an alternative narrative about our society were met with violent resistance and removal. In nearly all cities, despite often having vast public parks, show grounds, sports arenas, no alternative space could be found and offered to the Occupiers. It is clear that they, or rather their message, could not be tolerated. In relation to this consider a quote from D. H Lawrence who wrote:

‘But you have there the myth of the essential white America. All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of by-play.

The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.’

Perhaps this is also true of the souls of many other nations?

In any case, it is now obvious to all that our predominant western culture cannot continue as it is indefinitely. The signs are everywhere, including environmental destruction, species extinction, our oil-dependent production machinery, and even our farming practices evidenced by a recent peer reviewed report produced by 400 experts which concluded that “'business as usual' farming practices are no longer an option" (IAASTD 2008). The final hours have arrived. We are now engaged in the most destructive processes of resource extraction in all of history (e.g.: the Canadian Tar Sands projects). Revolts are either in progress or imminent across the globe in China, the Middle East and in Western nations, with parts of Europe being early candidates. As the opiates of consumerism and material comforts are removed from more and more people and they awake from what Chris Hedges refers to as ‘electronic hallucinations’ the true ugliness underlying our culture is revealed, and like Sitting Bull people are asking: ‘Do we submit or resist?’. Increasingly voices are calling for an end to passive resistance and advocating direct action ranging from non-violent (e.g. Chris Hedges) to violent (e.g. the film END-CIV).
Violent action is not desirable, as history shows. Violent movements are
typically led by violent people, and the resulting regimes are often worse than those they replace (consider the Reign of Terror in France). Regardless, we are unavoidably heading toward crash, clash or, more likely, a combination of both.

Hedges & Sacco (2012) are convinced that as our culture and the planet's systems collapse the cultural violence that has been mostly applied to others will now be turned on its own citizens. The enclosure movement provides past evidence of this as does state violence in response to protests in 1960's and 1970's USA (e.g. see the BBC series ‘The Century of Self’). State responses to the Occupy movement in general suggest that this is just as much a possibility today along with recent violent government responses to protests in Spain and China, and highly militarised police responses to protests in places like Ferguson, Missouri, U.S.A.

Yet we desperately need alternatives, and we need them soon. We are entering a phase where the true mettle of our leaders will be revealed and I fear we may find that the souls of those in many other countries are also ultimately seen to be “hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer” as powerful elites call upon the state to maintain their privileges to the bitter end. The fact that state power is used against both local and foreign populations clarifies who this culture really serves: the more powerful, the elite. In a 'culture that cannot learn' and without alternatives most of us, who are not elites, are ultimately doomed to both dispossession and oppression. First by
those currently in power and later by those who seize power in the resulting cultural vacuum. Thus the Luddite fight for a more humane and just society is now needed as much as it ever was - alternative cultures are diminishing whilst state power is growing ever more forbidding with the aid of technological tools of control and surveillance that the Luddites would never have dreamed possible. So let us in the following chapters explore these problems and consider the implications of technological development and its role in human society.

 

Chapter References 

 

Hedges, C & Sacco, J 2012, Days of
Destruction, Days of Revolt,
Nation Books.

IAASTD 2008, International Assessment of
Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development,
available
from:
http://www.agassessment.org/

Keynes, J.M 1931, Essays in Persuasion, MacMillan
and Co, London.

Postman, N 1993, Technopoly: The Surrender of
Culture to Technology
, Vintage Books, NY.

Roberts, P 2008, The End of Food: The Coming
Crisis in the World Food Industry
, Bloomsbury, Great Britain.

Sale, K 1999 'The Achievements of `General Ludd': A
Brief History of the Luddites', The Ecologist, vol. 29, no. 5, Aug/Sep

Saul, J.R 1992 Voltaire's Bastards: The
Dictatorship of Reason in the West
, Penguin Books.